Religious LibertyI do not know that we would enjoy religious liberty if it were not for the blatant, controversial, unrelenting political involvement of our Baptist forebears. One of my favorite Baptist heroes is Thomas Helwys. John Smythe had modeled for Helwys the route of political disengagement—he led the earliest Baptists to flee England to find a place to worship according to the dictates of conscience. When Helwys took the helm of the church from Smythe, he soon rejected the Smythe policy. Helwys believed that English Baptists had a responsibility to their fellow Englishmen to try to change England. So, Helwys & Co. packed up their belongings and left the Netherlands for England. Helwys authored his Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, mailed it directly to King James himself, and landed straight in jail for his trouble. The subject matter of Helwys's book was political. Many other heroes followed Bro. Helwys, and their influence is one of the major reasons that we enjoy religious liberty today. That, in my opinion, is worth a lot.
In 1802, it was a Baptist association that conducted the correspondence with Thomas Jefferson birthing the phrase "wall of separation between church and state." In 1913 the Southern Baptist Convention established the Christian Life Commission to interact with the civil government and defend religious liberty. In 1920 it was in conjunction with the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting held in Washington, DC, that George W. Truett delivered from the steps of the U. S. Capitol itself his message "Baptist and Religious Liberty." Our contribution to this concept has changed the fabric of our society. And mark my words: God brought about these changes not as much through our preaching as through our lobbying.
Human RightsSome will doubtless point out the irony of highlighting the convention birthed in pro-slavery rhetoric as a defender of human rights. And they would be right. Our record on this issue has been embarrassing at times. But thank God for the occasions when we have boldly defended human dignity and human rights. One of the great improvements to the 1963 BF&M was a pointed affirmation of universal human dignity, regardless of race. This was controversial in an age when Southern Baptist laypeople were debating whether black people had souls. Making such a political statement posed a serious risk of alienating existing Southern Baptists and blunting Southern Baptist evangelistic efforts in the South, but Southern Baptists took this action anyway because it was right.
And today, Southern Baptists are taking a strong stand on the dignity and rights of unborn humans. It is the right thing to do, and I'm proud of us for doing it. God forgive us for the pre-1979 years when we couldn't quite seem to figure out whether slaughtering babies was right or wrong.
ConclusionSo, from King James to George W. Bush, Baptists have reasoned with, debated, supported, denounced, and lobbied a wide range of political figures. The Baptist distinctive is not that we will not be involved in politics, but that we will not be involved in politics to gain an advantage for ourselves at the expense of religious liberty for everyone. They have spoken to us; we have spoken to them.
That legacy continues today. Our Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission continues to lobby the civil government to defend religious liberty and human rights. Although these important concepts are relatively secure in the United States, we have an opportunity to export religious liberty throughout the world. Certainly this effort is critically important to our evangelistic efforts. Some will pretend that lack of piety or zeal is the root cause of a world unreached for Christ. The fact of the matter is that a large swath of the world makes our missionary efforts illegal. They do so because these areas do not embrace the basic concept of religious liberty. Frankly, Dr. Condolezza Rice's comments about the deliberate spread of religious liberty around the globe are more pertinent to the basic purposes of the Southern Baptist Convention and hold more potential for missiological breakthrough than the sermons of a hundred local pastors. If she is successful in what she says she is trying to do, she will be one of the most powerful forces that God will use in our lifetimes to spread the gospel. I cannot say for sure that she was sincere. I cannot say for sure that she can be successful. I can, however, say for certain that she was relevant and that her work is important to our convention.
But let's get the man himself to speak next year.